Saturday, March 28, 2015

John Carpenter's THE WARD

John Carpenter probably took a look at the script for The Ward, after many years of not directing a theatrical feature - he did make two 'Masters of Horror' episodes, which can practically count as films, and they ranged from being quite good to just OK - and thought, "Ok, this gives me some room to play and do my thing, at least up to a point."   A tale of women, a mental hospital, and some really spooky ghosts - take the image above and it could easily be transposed to a pulp-paperback book from the 50's or 60's. 

It's also one of the only films in his filmography that doesn't have him as a writer OR composer, but that doesn't necessarily mean he didn't have his heart in it... up to a point. What he saw was likely what I saw in the film: a chance to get some cool mid 1960's period feel with a mental hospital setting (essentially a 'bottle' film in many ways) and practice some grisly and cool atmosphere to up the stakes.

The premise is 'B' horror all the way, as Kristen (Amber Heard) is sent to 'The Ward' after she is caught burning down a house. Why did she burn it down? What's the significance of it? She doesn't say, even when sort of reasonably asked by her doctor (Jared Harris). There's the usual clichés of the Ward of the various girls and personalities, but there's a problem: it seems that there are girls who have been let out... OR HAVE THEY? They seem to be lurking the halls, and taking the girls and, one by one, killing them in sinister, graphic displays (i.e. a sharp needle-sized knife through the eye, and burning with electrodes to a crisp).

I can easily see why this disappointed people awaiting the return of a proclaimed Master like Carpenter after so long - with such a setting and premise one might hope the filmmaker could go into creating hyper-surreal phantasmatographical set pieces (is that a word? whatever) ala In the Mouth of Madness. But the script, by the Rasmussen brothers, is more like a 90 minute Tales from the Crypt episode for TV: put the main character into a situation that we the audience can (sort of) get into, make some visual intrigue with flashes to an abuse situation with a girl hung by chains (those are some of the truly striking images in the film, drenched in a different color scheme that doesn't feel cheap), and with the tropes of a looney bin: the harridan head nurse (no calm Ratched exterior), a-hole male guards, and a semi-sympathetic doctor (Harris is probably the best actor in here, not that Heard doesn't try and succeed in what she's asked to do).

The biggest problem is that, as an audience who's come to see many of these mental hospital thriller and horror flicks - or just 'BOO!' psychological thrillers - you're ready possibly for what's to come next. Even the so-called 'twist' isn't that hard to figure out, and in a way it actually makes the movie a little more fun to get that curve-ball and get all of the tropes and clichés in another light. Does that totally excuse them of being clichés? Maybe not, but at least Carpenter and his team are trying to poke fun at them - in the sort of grungy way the film does - and it does recognize them as being clichés, if only by the casting being so spot on. When you see a bitchy girl acting as such, the actresses look the part as much as the mousy one or the "nice" girl. If you don't see where this all leads up to, I got a cruise ship in 1912 to sell you.

mmm, cooked mental patient... nah, nevermind, there's that red stuff...
A lot of this could fall apart, and perhaps for some it did - it certainly teeters on the edge into that realm you could see on those 'Cinema Sins' videos of many things being taken apart and seeing what ticks.  For me, what held it together was the knowingness (not so much self-consciousness) of the script, in a way that still didn't try to kid around too much. It's still a pedal-to-the-metal from-the-dead horror movie, and Carpenter wants to keep you on your toes in scene constructions and in the simple act of following characters, setting up tension, and letting the s*** go wild when it finally needs to.

At the same time, please don't mistake folks, it's certainly not 'classic-era' Carpenter - you won't see film critics breaking down a sequence like Siskel & Ebert did after Halloween came out - and you can tell some of the editing is faster than one might be used to. But it still makes for intense viewing a lot of the time, and you can feel the technique working on you in a good way. It's a director who has just enough confidence in the script to keep things moving along.

Is everything logical? I dunno. I'm sure this can be picked apart to ribbons. I defend The Ward as being a solid 'B' side; if Shutter Island was an 'A' movie release in 2010, this would be more than acceptable as the second half of the double feature. Through the confident direction and the solid performances, if not the writing, The Ward is a ghost-psychological-madhouse-WTF flick that doesn't shoot for the moon, but is better than you may have heard.

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